Category Archives: Questioning

Penn Wood Professional Development – Language acquisition and reading comprehension

The York Reading for Meaning Project (Snowling, 2010) compared three interventions with a control to determine their effectiveness in developing reading comprehension. The interventions were led by teaching assistants and lasted for 20 weeks, each week comprising of three 30 minute sessions. The three interventions were:

  • An oral language comprehension programme
  • A text comprehension programme
  • A combined oral and text comprehension programme

Their findings showed significant gains in reading comprehension scores for each intervention compared to the control group. Interestingly, the most effective intervention was not the text comprehension programme, but the oral language comprehension programme, which also resulted in greater gains in reading comprehension scores than the combined programme. These gains were still evident 11 months after the interventions ended.

With such an impact, it makes sense to attempt to turn this effective intervention by TAs into part of our day to day teaching. Perhaps we can adapt the programme to see even greater and longer lasting gains in language acquisition and reading comprehension if the ideas were embedded in our English lessons.

SVRHirsch reading

The simple view of reading identifies the importance of decoding and language comprehension in tandem to master reading for meaning. Hirsch would add to this the importance of domain knowledge, without which a reader would not make rapid connections between new and previously learned material. As such, explicitly teaching the general knowledge required to understand a text can support comprehension significantly. Of course, the challenge to this idea is that we can’t teach children the entirety of general knowledge. However, selecting great texts which reflect a variety of general knowledge schemas gives children the opportunity to develop key chunks of general knowledge on which further domain knowledge can be built through listening and reading.

Using great texts to teach language acquisition and reading comprehension is a perfect place to start. Once these texts have been selected, the first thing that teachers need to do is consider the following question:

                Which words, phrases or concepts are children likely to find difficult to understand?

Jean Gross, in Time to Talk talks of three tiers of vocabulary. Tier 1 vocabulary includes words and concepts that children will come across first when they begin to communicate. Tier 2 vocabulary includes language that children will be able to understand the concept of and that is tricky yet functional. These words could be used in a number of contexts. Finally, tier 3 vocabulary includes language that is domain specific and only used in a small number of contexts.

When we’re looking at the bits of a text that children are likely to find difficult to understand, we’d need to be looking for those tier 2 words within a text. For children learning English as an additional language and for children in the early years, we’d also need to explicitly teach tier 1 vocabulary. Usually, these would be common nouns, verbs and concepts and these guidelines from Stories for Talking by Rebecca Bergmann are helpful when selecting them:


  • High frequency
  • Functional
  • Related to the story being studied
  • Related by topic
  • Feature around the classroom or school
  • Easily supported with concrete objects


  • High frequency
  • Functional
  • Relate to the chosen nouns
  • Easy to act out


  • High Frequency
  • Functional
  • Relate to the chosen nouns
  • Most visually represented or repeated in the story
  • Can be studied as a pair (big/little)
  • Can be experienced practically around the classroom

Once that language has been identified, teachers can introduce it to children. By introducing it before children listen to or read a text, we can go some way to guarding against cognitive overload. Also, by increasing the number of interactions with this vocabulary, and by spacing those interactions, we increase the likelihood of long term retention of those ideas. Having said that, language is best learned in context so defining words for children will not suffice. The image below is an example of how language is introduced from the York Reading for Meaning Project programme materials:


This works well because the images provide contexts in which the word is used. The variety of images and contexts helps children to make connections between ideas. A slight amendment that includes the Talk for Writing approach would be to include the sentence from the text that the word is in.


Children will not internalise this language after one interaction with it. Children need to think hard about the meaning and application of the vocabulary over time if it is to be assimilated. The following question types come from Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown and Kucan.

Aggressive 2

Where children have to differentiate between two scenarios, such as in the Example or non-example?’ question, the quality of the question comes from the two scenarios being minimally different and rooted in misconceptions about a word’s meaning.  With a set of questions like this for a number of focus words across a unit of work, children’s practice of thinking about and using language can be spaced over time in a variety  of contexts, giving children a great chance of adding permanently to their vocabulary.

Oral and text comprehension

By understanding the typical difficulties that struggling readers experience, we can plan to address those issues with some carefully panned practice. If we then consider the implications from the York Reading for Meaning Project, that the materials from both the oral and text comprehension can have such an impact on reading comprehension, then we can provide great lessons.

Developing Language Acquisition and Reading Comprehension at Penn Wood outlines those difficulties and what might be done. The York Reading for Meaning Project found that oral comprehension work is more effective than a text comprehension or a combined oral and text comprehension programme when measured using reading comprehension tests. All of the suggestions for addressing the profile of the struggling reader could be applied through reading a story but also through listening to one. Talk for Writing provides a great opportunity for this as children internalise and retell stories using text maps. Oral comprehension work can quite easily be introduced at the point of retelling. With the opportunity presented, the next step is to find ways of making oral language development work in the classroom on a day to day basis.

Growing Great Teachers – Which research group?


Penn Wood – Growing Great Teachers

Key Principles:

  • Working on the ‘bright spots’ – building on existing strengths.
  • The Pareto principle – 20% of teaching strategies yield 80% of the value.
  • Deliberate practice – Focused, intentional practice supported by high quality feedback.
  • Action research – experimenting with strategies to find out what works.
  • Develop leadership capacity.
  • Better never stops. All teachers need to improve, not because we are not good enough, but because we can be even better.

Action Research Cycle

Teachers will come ready to think of a teaching sequence which has gone well.  Through discussion with year colleagues, using the coaching questions below, teachers will identify aspects of the teaching sequence that were good or better.  This will also provide some practice for teachers when coaching later in the action research cycle.

  • Tell me about a time when behaviour for learning was great?  What did you do that supported them to do this?
  • Tell me about a time when you could immediately respond to what a child said or their work with quality feedback?
  • Tell me about a great question or task?
  • Tell me about your most effective explanation?
  • Tell me about the outcomes for different groups of children?  How did you meet their needs?
  • Tell me about a time when you saw a real improvement in reading fluency /understanding?

These questions will help teachers to focus in on an area of strength that will then become the focus of a term’s CPD.   Teachers will develop on an aspect of good or better teaching in research groups, led by senior or middle leaders.  The groups are as follows:


  • What are the most effective strategies for improving fluency and understanding?
  • How can we create a positive climate for learning to read for pleasure and widely across the curriculum?

Modelling and explanations

  • What are the most effective ways of authoritatively imparting knowledge? 
  • In what ways can our explanations develop children’s resilience and thirst for knowledge?

Meeting the needs of different groups of children

  • How can we ensure that teaching strategies, support and intervention match individual needs accurately?
  • How can we differentiate tasks so that more children attain the higher levels in national assessments?

Feedback and questioning

  • How can we anticipate misconceptions, check for understanding and intervene to make a notable impact on learning?
  • How can we use feedback and questioning to ensure that more pupils attain higher levels in national assessments?


  • What are the most effective strategies to secure the early acquisition of language?
  • How do we increase the proportion of children meeting and exceeding national expectations?

Within these research groups, teachers will further discuss what worked well for them in their successful teaching sequences, with the aim of creating a toolkit for possible strategies.  This will be supported by short videos (available by logging into the school account), blog posts and books.


Modelling and explanations

Meeting the needs of different groups of children

Feedback and questioning

The final part of the session will be for each teacher to settle on one strategy that they will experiment with in their classrooms over the next few weeks.  The research leader will ensure that each teacher in their working group leaves with a plan in place.

Hassan’s internal number line

Hassan is a wonderful boy. He’s polite and has a great group of friends. But Hassan started Year 6 working significantly below his peers. His school history is of sustained underachievement with very little progress. He did not have an internalised number line with which to think about numbers, to the point where he could not reliably say which number out of two was biggest.


This post is an account of an intervention carried out by Amy Coyne. It is one of the most successful interventions I have seen and has resulted in vast improvements in Hassan’s ability to think about numbers. Here’s what happened:

These number cards were prepared: 53, 67, 54, 35, 76, 45

Two of the cards were presented to Hassan and, with the use of Numicon or dienes blocks or arrow cards, Amy modelled explaining which was the bigger number. Hassan picked this up fairly quickly, but to help him to retain this procedural knowledge, it was repeated little and often over the course of a few days.

A third card was added and Amy again modelled, using appropriate concrete equipment, how to order them. When he could consistently order three numbers, a further card was added until he could deal with ordering six cards. Using those six cards, Amy made seven different sequences:

53, 67, 54, 35, 76, 45

67, 35, 76, 54, 53, 45

76, 35, 67, 53, 45, 54

45, 53, 35, 76, 67, 54

54, 45, 76, 53, 35, 67

53, 54, 35, 76, 45, 67

45, 76, 54, 67, 53, 35

The cards were presented to Hassan in these orders, one set at a time, and Hassan was asked to order them. At first, with this slight change in task, he would place the numbers in fairly random order for each sequence. After completing each sequence, Amy ordered them with him, using concrete models when necessary. When Hassan was asked to read out the order, if he was incorrect, he often didn’t notice. However, when the sequence was read aloud to him, he could hear the error and would correct it.

This was repeated over several days for short periods of time. Sometimes this was in maths lessons and at other times it was not. The seven different sequences would be laid out in a straight line and he would pull the cards out and order them. As the days progressed, he could very quickly pick out card 35 and put it furthest left and also card 76 and put that furthest right – the smallest and greatest numbers. However the other cards in between were never placed consistently in order.

After a week of doing these sequences once or twice a day, he could order every sequence in the correct order. A new set of numbers was introduced: 12, 27, 45, 54, 59, 72

Hassan was very good at picking out the biggest and smallest numbers. The numbers in between were still more difficult for him. Amy modelled looking at the tens and units columns and this prompted him to order them correctly.

The cards were then mixed up, with more numbers being added one at a time to see if he could order them again. His confidence was growing and once he was happy with the order he had put them in, he was asked to read the numbers out to see if he could spot any errors himself. He often did and corrected them without Amy needing to intervene.

After a few days starting with six or more cards, he could reliably order them correctly every time. Next, some three digit numbers were added to make twelve cards overall. He was quickly able to deal with this progression. He was then given cards with multiples of ten to see if he could slot them into the correct places. He struggled a little with cards 10 and 20 but he placed multiples of ten more than twenty in the right places every time. If he needed to, he referred to a tape measure to check.

Once he was confident in ordering these numbers and could do it correctly every time, two numbers from the sequence were chosen. He was asked: ‘What are the smallest and biggest numbers that could go in the gap?’ This proved to be quite tricky for him and he would often say the number before the smallest card. This took him around a minute to process each time, and many answers were guesses. Amy modelled looking at a tape measure to find the two numbers (53 & 59). He then could see, using the tape, which numbers would come after 53 and before 59, and therefore the biggest and smallest that could go in the gap.

From here, Hassan is now working on adding and subtracting one digit numbers and multiples of ten from numbers in his card sets, with increasing success. Soon, the goal is that he can add and subtract any two digit number from any other.

Why this intervention worked, when other have failed

Spacing and interleaving

Regular short sessions, interspersed with other topics in maths lessons, with varied lengths of time in between those sessions has given Hassan time to internalise patterns of numbers and procedural knowledge for dealing with them.

Building knowledge of the number system

The more he practised recalling facts about numbers and procedures for how to think about them, the more successful he became. Each nugget of internalised knowledge enabled further memory development until he had internalised the basic number system.

Deliberate practice to mastery

The moment that Hassan understood and was successful did not signal the end of the intervention. It will continue until he never makes a mistake, even when tasks are altered.

Making links between ideas

Any new concepts were introduced alongside concepts that Hassan was familiar with.

Detailed dialogue between teacher and teaching assistant

Using video and observing ‘live’, the Amy and I talked about the nuances of the decisions that Hassan made to tweak tasks and feedback. This precise tailoring resulted in explanations, tasks and feedback which were accurately matched to Hassan’s needs.

This intervention was put in place because Hassan was working significantly below his peers at number. It was clear that he had not internalised a number line at the beginning of the year, but this shows that he now has. He will need more practice to cement his understanding but the progress that he has made has been good. We did not work on this with him for a week before the Christmas holiday. He had just over two weeks off school over Christmas and when he returned to school after the holiday, he could still deal with the number tasks accurately. Next, we are looking to see if the results are replicable with other children.

Details about the child have been changed to preserve anonymity.